How Happy Work Rewires Your Brain

“I’m always anxious.” Helen said. “I never know when my boss will pick on me. She’s just so unpredictable. It’s affecting everything.”
Helen works at a college in the New Haven, CT area. One of the reasons that she headed toward the non-profit arena was that the stress associated with the private sector was too much.  She was learning that people are still people, even if the non-profit arena was a bit kinder.
The challenge that Helen faced was one that many of our career counseling clients confront: the problems of the work day did not stay compartmentalized. Instead, many find that they bring their career issues home with them. In an effort to help our clients, I’ve been reading a great deal about anxiety, which is the most common complaint I hear from those in tough careers (more so than depression).  A constant anxious state rewires the brain. Paraphrasing one of the medical researchers I read, if you are stressed all day, you are more likely to misperceive the rope on a branch in your woods as a snake.
In Helen’s case, her daytime anxiety led to evenings where she would overly worry about events related to her children, her husband, the future etc.
Fortunately, the opposite is the case as well.  Happy work leads to positive rewiring. When not stressed, you are less likely to think that a missed homework assignment will culminate in your child failing out of school or that your spouse’s irritation over something trivial reveals deeper rifts in your marriage.  
Happy work leads to happy life.